Director Guillermo Cienfuegos finds family and forgiveness in ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’

Guillermo Cienfuegos

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos in the Fountain Cafe.

by Guillermo Cienfuegos

How the Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy, this great, Pulitzer Prize winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis managed to fall into my hands, I’ll never know. But I’m grateful for it. I feel so fortunate to be given the opportunity. And to direct it with this cast, at this theatre, is an embarrassment of blessings.

First of all I’m drawn to how funny and true the play is. There’s no better way to impart to an audience some essential truths about what it is to be human than while you’re making them laugh. I find Guirgis’ gift of being able to show us these flawed and damaged people in such a funny and loving way very inspiring.

Also as a Cuban, the play puts me in mind of a lot of Catholic imagery from my youth, including Santeria traditions. It makes me think of the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God”. Those are the characters in this play. The world may see them as junkies and drunks and ex cons and other outsiders of society – but they’re just children of God.

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Matthew Hancock and Marisol Miranda.

I’m also drawn to the play because of my father, who I called Papi. My father was a lot like Pops, the main character of the play – he’s fighting wars on many fronts, the largest of which could be with his own ego. And he’s trying to hold on to whatever control over his life he still has. But it’s in the surrender that one wins and finds grace.

The play deals with a lot of big issues – grief, alcoholism, policing, gentrification. But I think it’s about family, forgiveness and redemption.

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Actor Montae Russell gets in the zone for ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at the Fountain Theatre

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Montae Russell in “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Fountain Theatre.

By Darlene Donloe

Montae Russell is well known throughout Los Angeles theater circles for playing meaty roles. He’s played Charlie “Bird” Parker in Bird Lives!, Memphis in Two Trains Running and Elmore in a production of King Hedley II. He also played Mister on Broadway in King Hedley II opposite Viola Davis and Leslie Uggams.

Up next for the veteran thespian is a complicated, determined man named Walter “Pops” Washington who has declared war on almost everything in the Stephen Adly Guirgis 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama Between Riverside and Crazy, opening October 19 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

Russell, a Pittsburgh native is ready to take on the role. While talking to him about the show and “Pops”, the 50-something, married (Tonia), father of one, walked around a local park to let the imagery of the play and the character “sink in.”  It’s a process, he said allows him to be “closer to where I need to be” when he hits the stage.

Russell’s first acting role came in the seventh grade when he played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. His first professional play was in the off-Broadway production of Three Ways Home at the Astor Place Theater in New York.

Eventually he brought his talent to Los Angeles where he became a respected film, television and theater actor.

A highly sought after actor, Russell had to decide between doing August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Between Riverside and Crazy. He said it was a hard decision, but he read something in the “Pops” character that spoke to him.

In Between Riverside and Crazy, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis, ex-cop and recent widower Walter ‘Pops’ Washington has made a home for his newly paroled son in his sprawling, rent-controlled New York City apartment on Riverside Drive. But now the NYPD is demanding his signature to close an outstanding lawsuit, the landlord wants him out, the liquor store is closed, and the church is on his back — leaving Pops somewhere between Riverside… and crazy.

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Montae Russell and Victory Anthony in “Between Riverside and Crazy”

I recently caught up with Russell to discuss his role in Between Riverside and Crazy.

DD:  In your own words, describe Between Riverside and Crazy.

MR: I really can’t describe it because I’m in the midst of it. Well, from my character’s perspective,  he was a cop who was shot by a white cop eight years ago. The cop overreacted when he saw black people in a bar. My character is in a battle with NYPD. He’s living in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. The landlord wants him out so he can charge more rent.

But my character is dug in. He’s not backing down.   His son is an ex-con. He is fighting for his son. Every father wants his son to become a man. He is also fighting a war with himself. He has war with a lot of people. He has a battle with the bottle and his body. He has stress and strife.  There are external forces and an internal battle within himself. Sometimes it’s not about annihilating your opponent. Sometimes you just have to sign a truce.

DD: In what way are you like Pop and in what way are you the furthest from Pop?

MR: I’m a fighter, but I don’t have as many wars. I have a stubborn streak. I don’t have multiple wars, though. I don’t have people coming at me as he does. But, I can understand what it would be like. I respect the character. I just fight differently. 

DD: Why did you want to play this part?

MR: When I read it, I cracked up. A lot of things about the character made me laugh. He is raging a war with God, or with his beliefs because of all the things that have happened. You can’t win that war.  It’s a very hilarious play. Pops is pulling no punches. He doesn’t care. He is the master of his domain. He’s a very funny cat. He’s not a rabble-rouser. He’s not an activist. He’s a conservative – but not in a social way – more of an interpersonal way. He’s a traditional man, an old school man. He comes from a time when you controlled your emotions.

DD: How did you go about developing Pop?

MR: It’s a day-by-day thing. We’ll be developing until the end of the play in December. Different stuff is revealed each time you crack open the script. There is constant tweaking.

He’s not funny, Ha, Ha. He’s funny concerning his perspectives. Living like that can cause problems. You have to give a fuck at some point. You have to give a fuck about something.

DD: Have you ever been between Riverside and crazy?

MR:  You would have to ask the people around me.

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Montae Russell, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Marisol Miranda, Matthew Hancock.

DD: By what criteria do you decide to do a show?

MR: It has to be a challenge. I have to think I can bring something to it. It’s about what speaks to me. I was supposed to do Gem of the Ocean. I was going to play Caesar. Both shows were going up at the same time. I opted to do this instead. It’s difficult to turn down a role like Caesar. It would have also been difficult to turn down this role.

DD: You’ve played a lot of characters. What role did you nail?

MR: I try to do that all the time. I enjoyed playing Memphis in Two Trains Running. August Wilson front-loads his characters with a lot of stuff they are dealing with. The character challenged me. It felt good that I concurred it. The stuff he has to live through. His backstory – all of that comes into the show.  You’re responsible for the backstory even if it doesn’t come up in the play.

DD:  How do you prepare to go on stage?  Any rituals?

MR: I gotta be at the theater at least 45 minutes before I’m supposed to be there. I have to have food in my stomach to power through the show. It’s just like a sporting event. You can’t keep running back to the locker room. I like to warm up my voice. I warm up my diction and I stretch.  I need to be by myself and get in my space. I like to get in my zone.

DD:  Why did you want to be an actor?

MR: A lot of people today don’t know what they want to do. I was blessed at 13 – that’s when I knew. From there, I got green lights all the way. One job led to another. August Wilson wrote my letter of recommendation to get into Rutgers. He reached back.

DD: What happens to you when you’re on stage?

MR: It allows you to go to another world. Your imagination has to buy it. It’s the same concept when doing a show. We are on stage being looked at by an audience. That to me is fun. It’s nice to get away from the real world and step into someone else’s shoes for a while.

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This post originally appeared on Donloe’s Lowdown

VIDEO: Actress Lesley Fera says ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ is “incredible.” Don’t miss it!

What’s so special about theater?

Brendan Kiley

What’s so special about theater? I’ve been asked that last question so many times, and asked it in return, never getting further than the theater enthusiast’s shopworn answer: “There’s something magical about seeing it live.”

Sure, sure. But why? What’s so damn magical?

This summer, I thought I caught the glimmer of an answer in a billboard for the food-delivery service DoorDash. A well-groomed man reclined on a couch, phone in hand, neon diner sign above his head. Below him, the pitch: “Order burgers without moving your buns.”

Theater, I realized, is the opposite of that. It’s everything our watch-at-home, extra-pepperoni-hold-the-olives culture of comfort, distraction and pseudo-control (in which we get to play with inches of difference, but never yardage) has been engineered to avoid.

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Audiences arrive at The Fountain Theatre.

Theater is inconvenient (you must move your buns); it’s uncomfortable (at least airplanes have flight attendants you can flag down for pretzels); it’s puny for cultural capital (not the street cred of graffiti, nor the sophistication of symphonies); it’s economically silly (there are better ways to make money); it can be intensely claustrophobic and boring (can’t get up, can’t change the channel); and so on.

Compared to an evening of Netflix and Uber Eats, theater is downright risky: going somewhere strange to be a human, sitting with other humans, sharing nothing but air, space and a story. You might have to look at (and reckon with) things that make you squirm.

These discomforts can produce bizarre effects, and I’m enlisting two philosophers to help explore why. (My mother was a reader — I think she’d approve.)

The first, famed conservative Edmund Burke, who wrote a 1757 essay about the sublime.

“Sublime” is an exhausted word these hyper-accentuated days, when even mundane exchanges get exclamation marks (“hello!” thanks!” “bye!”) and superlatives (“he’s the worst,” “you’re the best,” “all the feels”). But it was a newish and special idea to 18th-century Europeans newly interested in the difference between the merely beautiful and the sublime.

Beautiful things, Burke argued in his essay, are safe and subordinate: a violet, a vase, a tamed landscape. (Think the pleasing colors and lines of a French vineyard.) But vast deserts? Storms at sea? Eerie ruins? Things we can’t control and aren’t useful, but still move us, are sublime.

Film is safe and subordinate — it cannot be sublime. Its camera work, even when “awesome,” is all manipulated arrangement of color and line. It is economically useful (Hollywood, Bollywood). And no matter how big the explosion or expensive the actor, it’s all tamed, disembodied representation — carefully edited shadows on the wall, infinitely reproducible, never adjustable. There’s no immediacy, no risk.

The immediacy, the event-ness of theater makes it more potent: I laugh harder in theaters than I do at movies. I bet I’ve logged more teary minutes (probably hours) in theaters than anywhere else — weddings and funerals included. And, as theatergoers are well aware, its potential for boredom is acute, serious business. It’s so real, some skillful artists use it as a tool, an audience tenderizer, lulling us and making us more sensitive for shocks to come.

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Why the potency of live-ness? Enter philosopher No. 2, Walter Benjamin, who had a word for this: aura.

His 1936 essay with a cumbersome title (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) thought through how the new technology of photography would change art. Super-simple distillation: Notre-Dame is unique, embodied. It has its own “aura … its unique existence at the place it happens to be.” If it burns, it’s gone. But a photograph of Notre-Dame is infinitely reproducible, a disembodied image you can pin to your favorite wall. Burn all the photos you like — there will be copies, aura-free, floating around.

“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” Benjamin wrote. His big example: The difference between theater and film.

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“Pulp Fiction” (Miramax)

Theater oozes aura and is irreproducible — not just from one “Hamlet” to another, but from night to night. “Pulp Fiction” will always be “Pulp Fiction” no matter where in the world you go, the camera an absolute dictator of your attention. (Benjamin points out that watching a movie isn’t watching acting — it’s watching editing.) Film is an object; theater is an event.

And while theater restricts your mind’s menu of distractions (no phones, no fast forward), it also provides a kind of liberation: an invitation to focus on the immediate present, free to move your attention wherever, from a gesture on stage to the lighting grid above your head. It’s like the strange relief you might feel on an airplane when you can’t use your phone but before the movies start. In one way, you’re stuck. In another, you’re finally unstuck.

Philosophical games aside, loving something like theater in the age of Netflix requires an element of visceral, irrational amour fou. Some people love the precision of a good script, others are in love with certain actors.

Here’s mine: I am incurably attracted to that moment when the house lights dim on a roomful of strangers, just before the stage lights flare up on other strangers who are about to become characters.

There’s a radical possibility in that dark interval, that gap. Doesn’t matter whether I’m in a cramped basement or razzle-dazzle show palace. Doesn’t matter what exciting 7 p.m. situation I’ve torn myself from to trudge to another damned play. The promise of that interval is the same. We’re all there together, for a common purpose: to let the rest of the world drift into the background like mental wallpaper, to see what’ll happen next to these people in this room. That is, to us.

You can only find that level of heightened group communion in a few places: theater, sports and church. People have been gathering to do those three things for thousands of years — and they aren’t going to stop. Even if the regional theaters go bankrupt, nation-states collapse and Broadway becomes a barely remembered relic sunk beneath the rising Atlantic Ocean, people will still gather to stop time and perform stories. It suspends the aloneness.

In January of 2010, my mother was dying. She wasn’t totally-bedridden-dying, not yet — but she was getting there. We didn’t know it then, of course, but she had exactly one year of life left.

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Marya Sea Kaminski as Electra, Seattle Shakespeare.

That month, I also saw a gut-churning, bone-achingly sorrowful performance of Electra. I was baffled, had to see it again and, for reasons I only dimly understood, bought my parents tickets to join me, to watch this live, raw, blistering expression of a grief we all privately carried and could barely comprehend, much less express. But in Electra, it was there. We could behold it — examine it. Why, in that particular moment, did I find such solace, such emotional solidarity, onstage?

It was something only theater could do.

Brendan Kiley is a Seattle Times arts and culture reporter. This post originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

The choir needs preaching, too.

FT audience Sept 2019by Stephen Sachs

It came from the young producer of a newly-formed immersive theatre company. His troupe eschews the conventional production of plays. Instead, it presents “multisensory experiences.” The question was targeted at me. The panel discussion at LATC brought together artistic directors from six LA companies, some new and some long-established, to talk over the goals and perils of creating theatre in Los Angeles. As Founder/Artistic Director of the Fountain, I was invited to speak for a “legacy theatre.” I was one of the old guys.

The question thrown to me by the young theater-maker is one I’ve been asked many times over thirty years. It comes when your theatre creates work that confronts social and political issues. The question will surface sometimes in reviews of new plays or be floated in post-show discussions with patrons. Depending on tone and intent, I’ve heard it posed both as a question and as a statement of accusation.

“Aren’t you just preaching to the choir?”

The trope of “preaching to the choir” is defined as presenting work that offers a message so obvious, so apparent and undebatable to those receiving it (because they think or feel the same way) it is therefore rendered meaningless.  A waste of time. For years, I agreed. Preaching to the choir was unproductive. Over time, I have changed my mind.

The choir needs preaching, too.

The choir are the folks at every service. They’ve heard it all. They’ve listened to the same scripture spoken from the same pulpit, time and time again. They know the words to every song and have sung them, over and over. By now the choir should embody, as human beings, what all the words mean. But they can’t. Nobody can. The truth is, once the choir believes that it “already knows,” the church is in trouble.

At the Fountain, the choir are our longtime loyal patrons who follow the artistic mission of our theatre. Together, we are committed to diversity and inclusion. At the Fountain, we dramatize stories on racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, homelessness. If I were to survey each of our devoted patrons I would wager that all would agree that these social issues are wrong.  Should the Fountain, therefore, not tell these stories?

Why do we go to a church or a temple? Why should we gather with like-minded people who share our same belief system, who think like we do, who know all the same stories and follow all the same rules. Why do we go? To be humbled. Reminded. Illuminated. We are complicated, imperfect beings. There is infinity to discover in ourselves and each other. We think we know.  We do not.

A few weeks ago I was reading a book on racism in America. The book was forcing me to confront my own position of privilege as a White man in this country.  I was highlighting sentences and paragraphs throughout. I also found myself skimming what I considered to be obvious sections outlining racism in this country, thinking, “I know, I know, I know” as I flipped the pages.  I then stopped myself. What was  I doing? Do I really know? Can I really know? Isn’t muttering “I know, I know, I know” while flipping pages on racism just another example of a well-meaning White liberal male self-medicating?

Once we say “I know” to any social issue, and do nothing, we become part of the problem. Preaching to those who need healing is easy. Changing the self-righteous is hard.

Preaching to the choir is pointless only if parishioners do nothing after the service. Just if educated well-meaning patrons at the Fountain see a play on injustice, nod their heads, agree that it’s terrible, feel good about themselves and then go home to their daily lives, unchanged. Preaching to the choir is essential when it pushes the choir to dig deeper inside itself and ask the hard questions: what is my role in this? How do I perpetuate what is wrong? How can I make it right?

At the Fountain, I am deeply aware that I am not only part of the choir, I am the Choir Leader. I am the straight, White male gatekeeper of a theatre dedicated to diversity. Even with my best intentions, no matter how hard I try, I do not “know.” I can not “know.” Whenever I pretend that I do, I have lost my way.

Coming to the theatre reminds me what the many ills of this nation make painfully clear.  No truth is self-evident.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre

Video: Matthew Hancock is home at the Fountain in ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’

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VIDEO: How did playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis get idea for ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’?

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Fountain Theatre to present celebrity reading of 1972 “The Candidate” in 2020 election year

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Poster for 1972 political film “The Candidate” starring Robert Redford.

The acclaimed Fountain Theatre has obtained permission from Warner Bros to present a one-night celebrity reading of the Jeremy Larner screenplay for the Academy Award winning 1972 movie, The Candidate.  The event will take place in the City Council Chamber at Los Angeles City Hall in 2020, the cast, date and time to be announced.

The celebrity reading continues the Fountain’s ongoing program created in partnership with LA City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell to bring local government, the arts community and the public together in a unique setting to address timely issues of the day. The Candidate will follow the Fountain’s hugely successful 2018 celebrity readings of All the President’s Men, starring cast members from The West Wing and Scandal, and the 2019 all-star reading of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Bellamy Young  and Sam Waterston.

In the gritty, documentary-like film The Candidate directed by Michael Ritchie, Robert Redford stars as an idealistic, good-natured attorney whose high standards are soiled by his run for political office.  Jeremy Larner won the Academy Award for his screenplay.  The film is considered one of the top ten political movies ever made.

Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, who directed the City Hall readings of All The President’s Men and Ms. Smith Goes to Washington, will guide the celebrity reading of The Candidate in 2020, stating “I can think of no better choice for the upcoming election year.”

VIDEO: Watch cops and kids put their stories on stage in short documentary ‘Walking the Beat’

Fountain Theatre awarded $50,000 grant from Ahmanson Foundation

FT night flags August 2019The Fountain Theatre is pleased to announce that it has been awarded an Arts and Humanities grant from the Ahmanson Foundation in the amount of $50,000, doubling the amount awarded to the Fountain by the Foundation last year.  The Ahmanson Foundation strives to enhance the quality of life and cultural legacy of the Los Angeles community by supporting non-profit organizations that demonstrate sound fiscal management, efficient operation, and program integrity.

“We are deeply grateful to the Ahmanson Foundation for its continued partnership and support,” states Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “This grant will allow us to enhance our ability to serve the Los Angeles community.”

The Ahmanson Foundation directs its giving toward the areas of the arts and humanities, education, human services, and health and medicine. The foundation’s grants in these areas are largely dedicated toward capital projects that support the nuts-and-bolts-type needs of non-profits.  The vast majority of the foundation’s philanthropy is directed toward organizations and institutions based in and serving the greater Los Angeles area.

The grant award reflects the success of The Fountain Theatre’s ongoing campaign under the guidance of Director of Development Barbara Goodhill to increase the levels and broaden the sources of contributed giving to the organization.  Today’s announcement follows last month’s news of a $40,000 award  from The Wallis Annenberg Foundation to the Fountain for general operating support.

“This generous award from the Ahmanson Foundation is another extraordinary endorsement and affirmation of The Fountain’s continued growth and prestige within Southern California’s cultural landscape and the funding community, ” states Goodhill.